It is often said that the one year anniversary of a loss is the hardest. Perhaps that is because it forces us into the realization that the world has continued on, in spite of the feeling that time has stood still. Or maybe it is because we have learned to continue forward and adjust to a life without what we lost, and the date propels us back to the loss as if it is still fresh and new. At any rate, here I am, sitting in the middle of another February 28th, a date that used to come and pass just as any other on the calendar until 2017 at 8p.m.
We are fortunate; no lives were lost in our family. In fact, no lives were lost in any of the homes that were taken with the wind that night. After seeing the damage that the tornado left behind on the night of February 28, 2017 in my hometown of Perryville, Missouri, it is with every wonder of the world that only one life was lost; a young man just beginning his adult life, swept away on the interstate while trying to beat the storm home.
My grandparents, at the adamant request of my grandmother who was certain the storm was coming straight for them, had taken shelter in their basement. My grandfather, notoriously stubborn and set in his ways, didn’t want to leave his recliner in the family room that was later found on the other side of the room, the wall where it once sat collapsed in on itself and the glass from the floor-to-ceiling windows peppered around it. He was waiting to watch the President’s speech that was set to air any moment, and wasn’t willing to miss it. Luckily my grandmother convinced him to turn it on in the basement since a tornado warning had just been issued for our county.
So downstairs they went around 7:45p.m., and my grandpa began his search for the remote to the basement TV, still convinced, as was I from looking at the radar from my own house a few miles away, that the storm cell was passing to the north. As it turns out, my oldest son had hidden the remote a couple of days earlier, due to a spat between him and his younger brother about the show they were watching, to prevent Logan from changing the channel. Annoyed, Grandpa decided he was going back upstairs and taking his place back in his beloved recliner.
My Grandma was pitching a fit at his unwillingness to take the tornado warning seriously, and Grandpa was just starting his ascent back upstairs with one foot on the bottom step, when disaster struck. There was a loud boom, and Grandpa reversed his course as he and Grandma both darted for cover in the closet beneath the basement stairs. The door at the bottom of the back stairs that came down from the garage swung open, then slammed shut again, right as they reached the closet. They pulled the closet door shut and stood inside, as the tornado passed above them and was gone just as quickly as it came.
When all was silent and still, they opened the closet door. The air around them was thick with blown-in-insulation, hurled into the basement from its former resting place in the attic that was ripped open and catapulted into the night sky. They could barely catch their breath, the swirling insulation was so thick. But they made their way out of the closet and up the stairs, to find only a few beams left of the ceiling above the living room and bedrooms. The roof over the family room was missing completely, the windows were blown out, and one wall was collapsed in. There was still a bit of roof left over the kitchen, dining room and garage, and that is where they took shelter to make a panicked phone call.
Meanwhile, across town, I was sitting in my bed with Logan next to me, watching an episode of some kids show while I was reading a chapter in my textbook for my college class. My phone was on the nightstand next to me, and the emergency alert sounded about 7:45, startling Logan and I and leaving our hearts racing. I set the book aside and got up out of bed to go outside and see for myself what the weather was doing. There was some lightning in the distance, but no rain, no wind, and no storm in town. I shrugged my shoulders and closed the door as the tornado siren up on the square started to sound.
I took my seat in the chair in the living room, where Hunter was playing a game on his Xbox. I pulled up the radar to see what the commotion was all about, but found that the storm cell in question was passing north of town, somewhat close to my grandparents, but looked to still be a few miles north even of them. So I brushed off the tornado warning and went back to a text conversation with a friend, while scrolling my facebook news feed. After all, we get tornado warnings all the time, but there is never actually a tornado.
A short while later, my phone began to ring in my hand. Mom. My first thought was, “yes mother, I know we’re under a tornado warning, but it’s almost over now and the storm is north of us.” But I wouldn’t have the opportunity to tell her this, because my “hello” was followed with a sense of urgency and panic in her voice as she uttered the sentence, “Mom and Dad’s house was hit.” I, in my place of utter complacency with the storm having passed to the north of town, was unable to comprehend her meaning. “What do you mean their house was hit?”
The words she spoke next jolted me into understanding, and into action. “I mean it’s gone. The tornado took it.” Goosebumps flooded my body from scalp to toes and I dove out of my chair. I asked if they were okay, which Mom assured me they were, they had just called her from Grandma’s cell phone and had been in the basement when it hit. I quickly said, “I’m on my way,” and quite possibly hung up on her as I can’t for the life of me recall the rest of that conversation.
I raced into my bedroom where I shouted at Logan to get some clothes on (he was in nothing but a pair of underwear after taking his shower), and slipped my feet back into my black patent flats, still in my work clothes from that day. As Logan rushed off to his room to throw on his clothes, I raced back to the living room, where Hunter was sitting with headphones on and had heard nothing of the commotion in the house behind him. I grabbed the headphones and pulled them off of his head, and shouted at him to get his shoes on, that Grandma and Grandpa’s house was hit by the tornado and we have to go right now!
It was the fastest any of the three of us had ever moved. Within two minutes of the phone call, we were in the car and on the road to my grandparents’ house, speed limit be damned. In my mind I was picturing a few trees blown over and a bit of a tricky path to my grandparents’ driveway. I had no idea at that point that the tornado was an EF-4, and the entire neighborhood was akin to a bomb site in a war zone.
We pulled up to their street, and only one police officer and a handful of civilians who were on a mission identical to our own, were there. The police officer was at the end of the street, so we parked along the highway and ran up to him, where he was hesitant to let us pass. But I told him my 80-year-old grandparents were in there and we were getting to them come hell or high water. He let us pass, with nothing but my iPhone flashlight to guide us and my slick-bottomed flats and dress pants to navigate my way. We made it only half the length of a football field before we realized the magnitude of what we had to traverse to make it to their house.
My grandparents lived nine houses down, their house centered perfectly at the top of the hill. The tornado had passed through the low place right in the center between the start of the street and the hill where they lived. There was a forest of trees on the left side of the road, and it was immediately clear that the entire forest was no longer standing. The path of destruction, even in the pitch black with no way to see more than a few feet in front of us, was immense. We climbed over the first fallen tree, then through downed (and dead) powerlines, then shined the light in front of us and were confronted with another wall of tangled branches.
This was going to be a tougher navigation than I was even remotely prepared for. There was a steady and rhythmic beeping of a confused house alarm coming from somewhere out in the darkness, as we conquered one mess of branches, only to be confronted by yet another. The beeping began to tunnel its way into my mind, and in a strange way kept me focused as I guided myself and my 12- and 9-year-old sons through the pandemonium.
We finally broke through the worst of the trees and found a house that was two doors down from my grandparents, the first landmark that was recognizable as it wasn’t completely missing from its foundation and its yard was not full of trees. We passed through their yard, then made it back to the street where we had another small mess of trees to scale before crawling up into my grandparents yard.
It was so dark that we could only make out the shape of a structure, but as we got closer we could see that most of the roof over the front porch and much of the bricks around the front door were collapsed onto the ground. Grandma knew I was coming as I had called her on the drive there, so she was waiting at the front door, which she held open as we climbed over the rubble in front of it and into the house.
Grandma was pacing the floors, and Grandpa was sitting calmly in his captain’s chair at the head of the dining room table. The beeping continued from somewhere in the darkness, and I began walking through the house to assess the damage with a flashlight Grandpa had found somewhere in the house. My dad called while I was there, because by that point news had spread across town about the tornado and where it had hit, so he wanted to know if my grandparents had been spared. When I shared the news, which still hadn’t fully taken root in my mind despite my standing quite literally in the middle of it, he hung up and said he’d be right there.
While waiting for him, I exited the back of the house and made my way down to the detached garage. There was a pile of tree branches in front of it and Grandpa’s truck was smashed completely flat. I took a wide path around the trees and made my way to the back of the shed, and was taken aback by what I found. The front half of the shed was grandpa’s workshop, and the back half of the shed was a large room used for storage. That room was completely gone. All that was left was the concrete foundation and, surprisingly, several boxes of my things that my grandparents had been storing for me while my house was on the market. Somehow, all of the furniture of Grandma’s and all of the tools and lawn equipment of my Grandpa’s that had been there were gone, but my boxes were all there, some sitting along what used to be the back wall, some toppled over the side onto the ground behind it.
Dad arrived, and with help from him and my sons, we moved my boxes of books and other items that could be damaged by water up to the garage at the house, which still had a roof overhead. No sooner than we got it moved, the second round of thunderstorms moved through, spilling buckets of rain onto the chaos. I no longer held any sense of time, as minutes and hours were ticking by on the clock, but time was standing still on Moore Drive. The only indicator that a world existed outside of that house was the occasional call from strangers and first responders passing by in the night, checking to make sure no one was injured, and the persistent beeping that still droned on from somewhere in the center of the destruction.
Although Grandpa, presumably still too in shock to realize the magnitude of what was happening, insisted that they could spend the night in the house in the basement bedroom, we knew that it wasn’t safe and that we needed to get them out of the house they had called home for 45 years…more than half of their lives.
We decided that the best path was certainly not the way that my dad and I had both come…my grandpa has bad knees and could never do the climbing and crawling required to make it through the ruins of the neighborhood. An older subdivision of the late 60’s and early 70’s, it was filled with mature trees. While this made for a beautiful neighborhood, it exacerbated the amount of destruction. We decided to go through their back yard and across the yard of the neighbors behind them, to the highway.
It turned out that was the best course of action, as the trees had all fallen just short of the highway, and aside from a little debris and some fallen powerlines, the highway was clear and my car was just up over the hill. The six of us made our way through the tangles of trees in the yards, and onto the highway. There was a truck completely wrapped up in the powerlines, and an El Camino dropped haphazardly into the mud alongside the highway. We passed the house with the beeping alarm, amazed that the alarm still worked when only a couple of walls were left standing.
There was a flashing glow of red and blue coming from ahead, and when we crested the hill we were met with a sea of police cars and fire trucks as far as the eye could see. They had come from cities and counties from a hundred mile radius around us. We were overwhelmed at the sight. My cousin, a firefighter, was there at the top of the hill and greeted us as we made our escape from the disaster area. My car was there on the side of the highway where I left it, now dwarfed by the crowd of firetrucks.
My dad chose to walk on down to his truck, which was parked at least half a mile away since, by the time he got there, that was the closest he could park. We loaded my grandparents, still in their clothes from that day and without anything to change into, into my car and headed for my house.
At that time I lived in a 900 square foot, two bedroom house with just my bed and the boys’ twin beds. My mom, stepdad and sister were on their way down from their home in Illinois, 180 miles away. They and my grandparents would all be getting a scant and restless few hours of sleep at my house, so I ran to Walmart to buy an extra air mattress, sheets and pillows while my grandparents settled in at my house.
Grandma shared my bed with me, my mom and stepdad slept in the boys’ beds, Ashlyn and Logan took the new air mattress in the floor of the boys’ room, and Hunter took the inflatable camping mattress in the living room floor. It was 1a.m. before we all settled in to sleep. And it was 4a.m. when the next round of storms rolled through, a new tornado warning was issued, setting off the emergency alert on my phone again for the second time in roughly eight hours, and we found ourselves all in the basement. That warning, luckily, was uneventful.
A couple of hours later we were all awake and moving, showering and dressing and preparing ourselves the best we could for what would kick off five days of tornado damage cleanup. By the time the neighborhood was opened back up to residents, a flood of volunteers had already sawed a path through the trees wide enough for a truck to pass up the street. And we were getting our first look at the full breadth of the damage under the cover of a clear blue sky.
Such a shock to the system cannot be taken in all at once. Images would come to me in my sleep of that morning, accompanied by the sound of the beeping alarm from the night before, for weeks afterwards. Even now, one year to the day later, I can hear the beeping and see images like high-definition video in my mind of that week spent in the heart of disaster. Pictures and videos were taken. Accounts of the events were written down in my journal. Personal items were salvaged and still serve as reminders. And yet, somehow it is still possible to forget, even for just a flash of a moment, that the place my family calls home is no longer there.
The need to walk into the back door, through the family room, and into the kitchen where my Grandma would be cleaning or cooking for her family, still occasionally overwhelms me. It is one thing to be patient with giving in to your desires. It is another entirely to not be able to fulfill them at all. No matter how strong the urge to walk into that house, it cannot be done. The only place that desire can be filled is within my own memories of days gone by.
I still remember every corner of that house as if it were part of my own body. I remember its appearance before each remodel or redecoration, I remember it as it was in its last years of life, and I will surely never forget how it looked those last few weeks between the night of the tornado and the day it was finally demolished. Nothing remains now. It is nothing more than a level lot, devoid even of most of the trees that always shaded the yard on the hottest of summer days.
Most of the houses in the neighborhood were rebuilt, but my grandparents felt they were too old to bother with rebuilding, so they opted to buy a different house instead. It is just as well, because nothing in the neighborhood looks the same. The houses are new, the lots have been leveled and reshaped, and the trees are all gone. As for my family, we have been forced to accept a new life and let go of what used to be.